Workplace Culture Triage

Photo by Camilo Jimenez on  Unsplash

Photo by Camilo Jimenez on Unsplash

Where do you start when it comes to changing the culture at your workplace and putting an end to the vicious cycle of poor results, low morale, disengagement and dissatisfaction? This is a question that will eventually have to be addressed by any leader who is up to anything worthwhile. However, if you have ever tried to do just that, you know finding the right answer is much easier said than done.

I’ve been there myself many times in my career. It seemed like every time I found myself in a turnaround situation, it was different than all the previous ones. It seemed like every crisis had its own brand of unique challenges I had never seen before, and in some ways, this was very true. One situation might involve poor planning for a multi-million dollar manufacturing operation start-up, while another might have been complicated by a deep-rooted silo mentality within the organization. Yet another crisis was being made worse by the fact that the resources brought in from other countries to solve our technical problems didn’t understand or respect the local traditions and were routinely offending people. On the other hand, in an acquisition that had gone wrong, the people from the two companies involved were speaking the same language and came from a fairly similar cultural background, and yet, they didn’t understand each other’s corporate lingo, so I had to literally translate from English to English!

I’m not sure exactly when it happened, but at some point, I had a revelation about all of these “unique” workplace culture issues. It became clear to me that, even though every one of those organizational challenges was superficially different and the symptoms were expressed differently in every case and the solution had to be customized to the particular situation, in the end, the solution to the problems always came down to a few fundamental, timeless, and universal principles. This realization alone has helped me stay calm and collected, and apply a methodical approach to culture transformations that consistently delivers breakthrough results, whether I was personally leading the effort or guiding other leaders through the process.

The metaphor that comes to mind is one of an ER doctor. When you take your sick child to the ER, you expect people to immediately drop everything and move fast and get your child the care they need. After all, you are likely in panic mode, so you somewhat expect the same from others. Instead, they ask you a few questions and then give you a few forms to fill out and then wait, and wait, and wait, until it’s time for them to take you in. Meanwhile, you are wondering, “Why are these people moving so slow when my child is dying?!” I won’t deny that some hospitals and urgent care facilities could be a lot more efficient, but for the most part, these people are professionals and the truth is that they have seen thousands of patients who come in and they have the ability and experience to discern the risk, determine the right course of action, and triage the patients if necessary.

People may wonder, how can ER doctors and paramedics and, for that matter, soldiers be so calm in what are clearly emergency situations? Some people may even misconstrue their lack of panic as a sign that they don’t care. But the fact is, the reason they are so calm and collected in situations where everyone is going crazy is because they do care and they know that when people panic, things don’t work. Panic mode prevents people from being effective at the times when effectiveness matters the most. So, emergency personnel are trained to be dispassionate so that they can be as effective as possible, and their experience means that they know what to do even when they don’t know what to do. This is why when someone presents with a mystery illness, rather than freaking out or throwing their hands up in exasperation, doctors systematically go down a diagnostic tree to single out what they’re dealing with, apply the treatment appropriate for the diagnosed condition, and move on to the next patient once they see progress is being made.

The ability to calmly and systematically diagnose and prescribe a treatment for a certain condition is not something that comes quickly or easily, but it also isn’t outside the realm of possibility. It is the result of repeated training and years of experience learning from these exact situations. Since panic arises from a feeling of not being in control, which comes from lack of knowledge and experience, repeated exposure to these situations makes their solutions clearer and simpler over time. This is just as true for leaders dealing with workplace culture issues. They know a thing or two, because they have seen a thing or two, as they say.

Each person is different, and each illness is different, but a doctor doesn’t have to guess what to do with a patient who has overdosed on a certain drug, or has alcohol poisoning, or someone who is having a stroke; these conditions and their treatments are etched into their very being to the point that the response becomes basically automatic. This is because, like the timeless and universal principles of leadership and culture transformation, there are baseline parameters for health that don’t really change. Your heart need to be pumping, your organs need to be working, you need to be breathing, your blood needs to be flowing, your brain needs to be generating electrical impulses, and so on.

Successfully treating an illness does require some discernment and customization, because you need to know which unique pathway to take back to health, but health itself isn’t the mystery. Similarly, while every organization has a unique situation that requires some expertise to address, every treatment involves moving it in the same direction: commitment, integrity, accountability, communication, engagement, and so on. Critically, the treatment for a known condition works as long as the patient complies with it; if you have scurvy, vitamin C will cure you every single time. Likewise, when it comes to culture, the solutions work if you actually work them, regardless of whether or not you believe in them or understand them or think they are too simple/complicated.

The question for us as leaders is whether we are going to act like the panicking parent or the seasoned ER doctor when it comes to our sick organizational culture. Are we going to panic and run around like chickens with their heads cut off, randomly taking action only to be disappointed because the results never come? Or are we going to remain calm, take responsibility, understand the fundamental issues and begin to address them methodically? Are we going to over-complicate the situation by focusing on the fact that we have never seen a situation quite like the one at hand, or are we going to first look at the vital signs, draw some conclusions, make our diagnosis, and then prescribe the treatment that will bring our organization back to life?

If you’re thinking, “It can’t be that simple!” that thought itself is the problem! The greatest challenge that most leaders face, aside from the fact that they may not have had the experience to recognize the symptoms of an unhealthy culture or decide on the right treatment, is that they believe that organizational problems are too complicated and their solutions must be as well. As a result, leaders all the way up to the CEO position end up shying away from even trying to understand and solve their organizational issues, because they believe it will be too difficult and require too much from them. But again, this is going into panic mode, and this is where external resources with the knowledge and experience to deal with these issues can be a great option.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that the solution to all organizational problems is some one-size-fits-all approach; far from it. But what I am suggesting is that once you have developed some mastery in the fundamental causes of the unique symptoms that show up, you are able to assess the situation much more clearly and accurately without getting stuck in the weeds. Only then can you formulate an effective, customized solution that is uniquely right for the particular challenge the organization is facing.

I am also not suggesting that the answer is to move slowly. Sometimes there is cause for urgent action, just as in the ER. If a gun shot is involved, it warrants immediate and meaningful action. Likewise, if an organization is dealing with unacceptable norms and behaviors that are disruptive and damaging, one must get in action to address them immediately. However, even the urgent action must be taken deliberately and not in panic mode. And it takes discernment, training, and experience to know when to act with urgency and when to take a more measured approach. This is exactly what I mean by workplace culture triage.

You might be thinking, “That sounds good if you have the experience to know what you’re looking at, but what about me?” To that, I would say, the most important thing is to trust yourself and get in action to do the best that you can. In other words, don’t shy away from attempting to understand and address the issue simply because you are not an expert. No one was an expert when they started out. The other most important thing you can do is recognize and be honest with yourself when you come to the limit of your knowledge or expertise. Just as some patients require the intervention of a specialist, some organizational situations may call for engaging external resources who have dealt with organizational issues and can guide you through the process. And when you do get external resources involved, I would suggest that you engage a resource who not only has the proper expertise, but is willing to treat you like a talented intern who has the potential to develop into a skilled ER doctor one day, rather than someone who is just in their way as they work their magic.

I’d love to hear your stories of workplace culture triage. Has culture work become clearer and simpler for you with experience? Are there any tips and tricks you can offer to those just starting out? Let me know in the comments below.

Resources related to this post:

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You can now listen to the new 5-part audio series, “Transforming Your Workplace Experience!" This audio series serves as both a great standalone introduction to culture transformation, as well as a companion to our previously available free culture transformation guide. In the series, I walk you through some applications and examples of the concepts presented in the guide, so that you can more effectively put them into practice and get motivated by the progress you will start making. I know that after learning and applying the concepts and distinctions that I present in the guide and audio series, you will be more qualified than ever to create extraordinary cultures that consistently deliver breakthrough results!

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About the Author: Amir Ghannad is an international keynote speaker, author of The Transformative Leader, leadership consultant, culture transformation champion, and founder of The Ghannad Group. He has made it his life's work to guide leaders and equip them with the tools, skills, and the mindset necessary to create extraordinary workplace cultures that deliver breakthrough results. Download his free e-book, titled 5 Practical Steps to Make Your Culture Transformation Stick by clicking here.

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As always, have a great week! May you Boldly Declare, Courageously Pursue, and Abundantly Achieve the Extraordinary!

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